Years ago, when I was a rabbinic student, I was deeply troubled by the approach taken in my Bible class. I truly loved studying Bible and I had a wonderful teacher, Dr. Stanley Gevirtz (z”l), but the approach of analyzing and dissecting verses felt foreign to me. Wasn’t the Bible, especially the Torah, sacred? How could I affirm during a worship service: “V’zot HaTorah . This is the Torah which God gave to Moses” when I was learning that the Torah was a document that was transmitted over centuries by different authors and could best be understood within the context of Ancient Near Eastern literature?
I wrestled with this contradiction for quite some time until I came to a resolution. Rather than accepting an either/or proposition that the Torah is a historical literature or the Torah is sacred text, I came to the realization that Torah is both. In the context of Jewish worship and practice, I can affirm and celebrate Torah as God’s message uniquely intended for the Jewish people. In a study environment, I can utilize analytical and linguistic skills to contextualize meaning from chapter and verse. Neither approach cancels out the other. Indeed, the two approaches to Torah are complementary and together allow reason and faith to inform one another.
I share this with you because starting next month, I will be offering two distinct approaches to Jewish prayer. On three Wednesday nights, I will be teaching a class on Jewish Worship. The purpose of the class is to educate adults about the structure of the prayer book; how it was created over many centuries; and what Jewish prayers came first and which were added later. We will explore modifications that the Reform movement made in Jewish worship and how that impacted the creation of our current siddur, Mishkan T’filah. In our third session, we will take a look at what prayers are customarily included in a Shabbat Evening service and the range of choices a worship leader has in shaping a service.
I look forward to teaching these three sessions that will be held from 7:30-9:00pm on November 5, 19, and December 3. Yet it is one thing to teach about Jewish worship and it is another thing to experience it. Of course we have regular worship services on Friday night at Temple Beth Torah. As much as I enjoy our Shabbat evening services, there is a different approach to Jewish prayer that I also find meaningful; an approach that is less structured, more spontaneous, and more personal. At Temple Beth Torah, we call it Casual Shabbat. Over the years, I’ve offered this service on occasion. It is my intent this year to lead this service on a more regular basis. Starting on the first Saturday of every month, beginning November 1, we will have a Casual Shabbat service that will begin at 10am. Feel free to come as you are – stay for a service that lasts around an hour – and if you feel like bringing a nosh to enjoy afterwards, you are more than welcome to do so though it is not required.
Torah Study and Simchat Torah; Learning about Jewish Worship and Experiencing Jewish Prayer; are not contradictions in Jewish life. Indeed analytical and experiential approaches both complement and enhance one another.